Northern Catskill regenerative agriculture has faced challenges but new local initiatives hold promise for good things to come.
“Farm to table” is vulnerable to green-washing… better to do it than talk about it!
The CSA model is evolving in creative ways to better serve farmers & eaters.
Farmers need to build their local networks to work with regional distributors more effectively and polilcymakers need to think more about affordable farmland access and transitioning.
Growing regenerative agriculture means we need to focus on affordable land access and new farmer training not just building supports for existing farms.
TALKING WITH Tianna Kennedy
of Star Route Farm & 607 CSA
Contributor: Susan Arterian Chang
Tianna moved to the northern Catskills nine years ago, after a career in the arts and academia (among other things) in New York City. She cut her teeth as a farmer working for Lucky Dog Farm in Hamden, Delaware County, and later joined Walter Riesen to break ground at Star Route Farm, a leased 70-acre former dairy and horse farm in Charlotteville, New York, which they have transitioned to a ten-acre diversified vegetable, botanicals, and small grain farm. In 2015, to raise capital for Star Route before it had a sufficient track record to access bank lending, the farm collaborated with a neighboring vegetable farm, Berry Brook Farm, to start the 607 CSA, a unique multi-farm, full-diet, community-supported agriculture project.
While Star Route Farm has evolved modestly as she had hoped, Tianna reports, “607 has been very successful, growing by 40 percent every year.” This season, in addition to selling over two-hundred shares by combining the produce of, now, four vegetable operations (Lucky Dog Farm and Chicory Creek Farm came aboard this year), the 607 gives its members the online option of purchasing products on a weekly basis from 14 partner farms. It now has 23 drop-off locations—12 in Brooklyn, 2 in Manhattan, 1 in Queens, and 8 in the Catskills.
All of the vegetable farms participating in the CSA, as well as many of the other contributing farms, also work with restaurants and grocers in the city. In the past, consistent and reliable trucking has been a challenge for area farms. This year the 607 CSA will act as an anchor business attracting Myers Produce to the region as a distributor, which means due to the consistency of the CSA deliveries, area farms will also be able to use Annie Myer’s trucking as a wholesale buyer as well as transportation to their established accounts in New York and Boston. This third party transportation/logistics opportunity is a great boon to all Catskills farmers, not just those participating in the 607 CSA.
What are the challenges you have encountered and opportunities you see as a farmer and CSA operator in the Northern Catskills?
While there are a lot of things happening in other parts of the Hudson Valley agriculture sector, here in the Northern Catskills it has been languishing. In addition to the dairy crisis happening everywhere, we recently lost an exciting new creamery project because the investors backed out prematurely. We also lost some of our talented young farmers to the Hudson Valley farm projects where agriculture is more supported. Our CSA trucking fell apart last year because the farmer running it for us stepped down and our arrangement with a third party fell apart. So I have spent most of the winter finding new distribution for the thirty-five farms we work with that have markets in the city. And I just convinced Annie Myers, of Myers Produce [a regional distributor with base locations in Northern Vermont, Western Massachusetts, and New York City] to start working over here, using our CSA as an anchor. It is a risk for her and a lot of extra work.
We are at a very precarious and funny moment here but at the same time I think we are on the brink of a new era where positive change will happen. I am on the Board of The Center for Agricultural Development & Entrepreneurship (CADE) and the Economic Viability Committee of the Watershed Agricultural Council and have started a Catskills Chapter of the National Young Farmers' Coalition.
CADE is doing a great job with business development and access to markets, but we are in the process of developing programs to address land access, farm preservation, and beginner farmer training. You can look at it as a flow chart — if you are concentrating at the end of the chain but nothing is happening at the beginning, the system fails at some point. I'm excited about the direction we're going and feel like there will be strong programs in place before too long.
The Watershed Agricultural Council is making funds available for infrastructure projects like building pole barns and fencing to keep cattle out of water, which is great, but meanwhile to date there is no guarantee that the farmland will stay in farming once the land is passed to the next generation. We all need to think about transition planning. There are many hundreds of acres in our region vulnerable to subdivision and development. WAC does great work with easements and Pure Catskills Catalogue and the grants and business development projects they have in place now are great assets to area farms, so I'm happy to be part of the conversation moving forward.
How is 607’s business model evolving?
607 is partnering with more vegetable farms this year because the demand in the city is such that my farm and our existing partner farms could not provide enough vegetables to meet demand. The multi-farm CSA has worked well for me and my farm partner not just because we wanted to collaborate with other farmers in the region but also working with farmers helps mitigate our stress to come up with a perfect sampling of 10 vegetables on our own for our CSA members. We now have other farms to lean on.
Now we will be working with 4 vegetable farms and 14 other farms—mushrooms, milk, bread, and eggs—and others that CSA members can choose products from to add to their purchases on a weekly basis. They are all family farms, tiny but legit, that wouldn’t otherwise make it to the city. We are creating new systems to collaborate and profit share. It is kind of a cooperative. I do all of the administration but we make decisions collectively.
Our outlets in the city have grown too. We had 13 last year and 23 this year, we drop off at wine stores and restaurants and wherever people are willing to host. There is a lot of management to deal with, but it is also sweet to do a drop off, for example, at a daycare in Washington Heights for ten kids.
I wrote a business plan for 607 this past year and I think it is in good shape although it is not particularly profitable. I feel there is room for growth but we are doing ok. Star Route has a great relationship with restaurants—half of the farm’s produce goes to 17 restaurants. The chefs love us, so this year we’re hoping that our farm can focus more on restaurant sales as I run the CSA as a separate business.
Restaurants often promote themselves as farm-to-table but do you think they do enough to promote the farmers?
I have mixed feelings about that. I feel a lot of times restaurants will tell the stories about these little farms they source from but end up buying from Sysco. So it is in some ways a green-washing tactic. I would rather have them not talk about it and do it!
I work with the Tarlow Group and I really respect the fact they do everything right. They use local artisans and are fair with labor and use locally sourced food but they don’t talk about it that much. Each place has its own character and their chefs have a lot of autonomy, which is great. I also work with their diaspora chefs who started their own restaurants. I live up here but it is fun to engage with the city chefs.
They succeed because they create a good dining experience, have quality, and are responsible. I kind of love that but I think maybe at the same time, a couple of times a year, they could have an event or tell the story not as part of their business model, but as a stand-alone project. It would be great to collaborate with them in that way.
What are your experiences working with local distributors and food hubs?
We don’t have a lot that come here. We are in the middle of nowhere, we do a lot of last mile, but getting people to come here is hard. We worked with Lucky Dog hub and we are in conversation with the developing hubs—Catskills Food Hub in Sullivan County has funding for a big space and Headwaters Food Hub has peeked our way to see if there are any markets for them to play with. Right now we are looking to collaborate with a core group of farmers doing good work and if we survive long enough we will be able to tap into all these other great projects in the future.
How do you employ your farm workers?
We employed 10 people last year but no one is on the payroll. We have contract workers on 1099s. Unfortunately, we don’t have year-round jobs for people but we are trying to grow that capacity. The CSA just split off as a separate business this year so it will be a while before we have capacity to do that. It is a lot of work; there is never enough money for labor and staffing in agriculture.
Can you talk about your vision to move to a cooperative model?
I have been talking with Faith Gilbert who wrote Cooperative Farming: Frameworks for Farming Together, about business models. For now we are sticking with the LLC for the CSA and work on operating agreements that are more collaborative.
If a farm we broker for wants to take more leadership/ownership with the CSA we can write them in as a partner to the operating agreement. LLCs are flexible in that way.
I would like Star Route to be worker-owned eventually if we could get a couple more people on board. Currently, as it is, Walter and I are both owners and employees. It would be great for a second-generation American to come in as a manager and take over as owner. It is the perfect farm for that. Even though it is a young farm, getting a succession plan in place is important—a reparations model would be great for us. It’s important to diversify ownership.
What are the challenges you have experienced leasing land for Star Route?
We had been doing year-to-year leases so weren’t able to make big capital investment, but the new owner just gave us a 10-year lease. At least now we can start a business that can be transferred, although the owner doesn’t want to sell the land. It is a lovely 60+ acre piece of property and a great pond for irrigation and swimming, a nice place to be.
What are your longer-term personal goals as a supporter of regenerative agriculture in the region?
My goals are to get this farm in a stable spot with a stable market, and to transition ownership. I want to get the CSA to the right place too—I don’t think an infinite growth plan is a good idea, but I would like to optimize it and get it to a comfortable level. It is a great market opportunity for farmers in my region, so it is a community project I care about. The farm we are using as an aggregation space for the CSA now is transitioning to a younger generation of farmers and they might want to take it over at some point.
Myself, I would really like to start from scratch and on a property where we have equity. There are famously narrow margins in farming and though I love our business model of selling raw ingredients — real food — I would love to have the security of land-ownership in my future.
I am also really enjoying connecting the dots and creating a regional plan and working with CADE, and various stakeholders to do land-access work in the area. These are groups that are trying to revitalize the rural economy in an exciting and new way. I have done 10 years on my knees planting onions in April. I think I am ready to go on to a different phase of my life.